Donors Should Ensure Funding Doesn’t Contribute to Rights Violations
Human Rights Watch – (Beirut) – The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) have arbitrarily arrested and summarily deported thousands of Syrians, including unaccompanied children, to Syria between April and May 2023, Human Rights Watch said today.
Deported Syrians said the LAF gave no consideration to their refugee status or fears of persecution if returned. One man said the Syrian military arbitrarily detained, tortured, and forcibly conscripted him into the Syrian military’s reserve force after he was deported in April. The summary deportations, which have intensified since January 1, have generally targeted Syrians without legal status across Lebanon. Donor governments supporting Lebanon’s military should urge Lebanese authorities to halt such deportations and ensure that provided funds do not contribute to or perpetuate rights violations.
“Lebanon is hosting the largest number of refugees per capita in the world amid a grueling economic crisis, but this is no excuse to round up Syrians and dump them over the border into the hands of their abusive government,” said Ramzi Kaiss, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Syrians in Lebanon are living in constant fear that they could be picked up and sent back to nightmarish conditions, regardless of their refugee status.”
In May and June 2023, Human Rights Watch interviewed by phone or in person 11 Syrian men whom the Lebanese Armed Forces deported back to Syria, in addition to 5 relatives of people who were arbitrarily arrested and deported. Human Rights Watch also interviewed 10 representatives of international and national civil society organizations and members of the humanitarian community working on the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
On June 8, Human Rights Watch sent letters with research findings to the LAF and the Directorate of General Security and requested their responses. The LAF responded on June 22, saying that the army was implementing the Higher Defense Council’s April 24, 2019, decision to deport Syrians entering Lebanon irregularly after April 2019. The army also said it was acting in accordance with the outcome of an April 26 ministerial meeting “affirming the measures and actions taken in implementation of the Higher Defense Council’s decision by the army and all security agencies against violators, especially those who entered illegally and do not possess official and legal document.”
The army denied arbitrarily or systematically deporting Syrians but maintained that deportations take place as part of security operations, based on credible security threats.
However, in 15 of the 16 cases examined, the persons deported had entered Lebanon prior to 2019 and 10 were deported before the April 26 ministerial meeting.
Three of the five relatives interviewed said they have not heard from their family members since their arrest and deportation. Two received phone calls from their relatives several days after the deportation. One was in the custody of the Syrian Army’s Fourth Division, an elite military unit led by President Bashar al-Assad’s brother that has participated in the extrajudicial killing of thousands of protesters and the arbitrary arrest of tens of thousands of people across the country. The other had been forcibly recruited to serve in Syria’s military reserve force.
One person interviewed said that Syrian Military Intelligence had arrested him and 12 other people following their deportation and detained them in the Branch 235 prison, better known as the Palestine Branch, in Damascus. He said they had been severely tortured, including through electric shocks, beaten with a water pipe, and hung from the ceiling by their hands.
While there are no official public statistics on the number of arrests or deportations, a humanitarian source said that, since April 2023, there have been over 100 raids, 2,200 arrests, and 1,800 deportations of Syrian refugees. Humanitarian workers said that the 2023 deportation wave is the most severe.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed 3 people whom the LAF deported after pulling them back on December 31, 2022, from a sinking boat carrying more than 200 people attempting to flee to Europe via the Mediterranean, including a man and his young nephew.
In all deportation cases documented, the army failed to provide deportees with the opportunity to challenge their deportation. When deportees told the army that they were registered as refugees with UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, and feared being returned to Syria, their pleas were ignored. Six people reported abusive treatment during their deportation with beatings, threats, sexual harassment, and degrading treatment, including being blindfolded, slapped, and forced to stand for hours.
The LAF’s summary deportation of Syrians is in clear breach of Lebanese law, which requires deportations to be conducted through a judicial authority or, in exceptional cases, by the decision of the General Director of General Security based on an assessment of individual circumstances.
These deportations are also in breach of Lebanon’s obligations as a party to the UN Convention Against Torture and under the customary international law principle of nonrefoulment not to forcibly return people to countries where they face a clear risk of torture or other persecution. The detention and ill-treatment of children, family separation, and other abuses violate Lebanon’s children’s rights obligations.
The UN refugee agency mandated to provide international protection and humanitarian assistance to refugees, UNHCR, maintains that Syria is unsafe and that it will not facilitate mass returns in the absence of key protection conditions.
Lebanese authorities should reform residency regulations, reintroduce UNHCR registration, waive residency renewal fees, and end the practice of detaining and deporting refugees on the basis of expired residency documents. Authorities should also rescind the May 2019 Higher Defense Council’s decision regarding the deportation of Syrian refugees who enter the country unofficially. Such changes will not only protect refugees’ rights but will promote greater stability in Lebanon by ensuring that Syrian refugees are not driven to destitution, Human Rights Watch said.
Governments funding the LAF should press the military to end summary deportations of Syrians. Donor governments should also develop a public human rights impact assessment and press Lebanon to allow an independent reporting mechanism to ensure that funding does not contribute to or perpetuate human rights violations.
“Lebanon’s donors should ensure that all aid and equipment provided to support the Lebanese Armed Forces is not effectively funding forced returns of Syrians back to an uncertain future,” Kaiss said. “Accounts of torture of returnees and their forced military conscription into a bloody war that has killed and displaced hundreds of thousands show that Syria is not safe for returns.”
Lebanon hosts more than an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees who fled since 2011, making it the country with the highest population of refugees per capita in the world. Amid an unprecedented economic crisis gripping the country, 90 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in extreme poverty.
Until January 2015, Syrians fleeing the war were able to enter the country without a visa and renew their residencies virtually without charge. Since then, however, the General Directorate of General Security has banned UNHCR from registering Syrian refugees and imposed restrictive and costly residency renewal regulations, barring many refugees from maintaining their legal status in the country. According to the latest findings of the 2022 Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, only 17 percent of Syrian refugees hold legal residency.
Their lack of legal status means they cannot move freely through checkpoints across the country, and have difficulty getting services such as health care or education, and registering births, deaths, and marriages. Lebanon’s Higher Defense Council made several decisions in 2019 that increased pressure on Syrian refugees in Lebanon, including the summary deportation of those who enter Lebanon irregularly, the demolition of refugee shelters, and a crackdown on Syrians working without authorization. The result has led to a host of coercive regulations and ad hoc practices designed to ensure that Syrian refugees will eventually feel like they have no choice but to return to Syria.
In an environment of increasingly coercive measures against refugees designed to force people to consider returning to Syria, Lebanon has conducted several rounds of arrests and forced returns of Syrian refugees since 2012. Since 2017, leading politicians in Lebanon have increasingly called for the return of refugees to Syria, and the authorities have put pressure on UNHCR to organize returns despite the devastating conditions inside Syria. UNHCR has said that it cannot promote or facilitate returns of refugees before it has determined that conditions in Syria are safe. General Security has been facilitating “voluntary” returns for refugees since May 2018.
In a letter to Human Rights Watch in 2021, Lebanon’s General Security said it had “returned” 6,345 Syrians between April 25, 2019, and September 19, 2021, in implementation of the Higher Defense Council’s decision. While the General Security Directorate is the Lebanese authority responsible for deportation, the summary deportations in Lebanon between April and May were carried out by the LAF and are an alarming spike in the number of refugees forcibly returned to Syria.
None of the Syrians interviewed had regular legal status in Lebanon or held valid residency cards, which are difficult to obtain for most Syrian refugees. According to a recent analysis, 83 percent of the Syrian refugee population lacks legal residency, an all-time low. In all cases examined, deportees were registered or known to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. In 2016, Human Rights Watch published a report documenting how the Lebanese authorities imposed regulations that effectively barred many Syrian refugees from obtaining or renewing their residency permits, heightening risks of exploitation and abuse among people who fled persecution and war.
In October 2021, Human Rights Watch documented that Syrian refugees who returned to Syria between 2017 and 2021 from Lebanon and Jordan faced grave human rights abuses and persecution at the hands of the Syrian government and affiliated militias, demonstrating that Syria is not safe for returns. Returnees also struggled to survive and meet their basic needs in a country decimated by conflict.
The LAF has received significant funding from Lebanon’s international donors in recent years. Examples include 22 million British pounds between 2019 and 2022 from the UK government, 6 million euros from the European Union in December 2022, and $72 million from the US government in January 2023 for Lebanon’s army and police as cash stipends for six months.
Between 2017 and 2022, the US Department of Defense provided Lebanon with $963 million in “security services through assistance and arms transfers,” and the US Department of Energy provided Lebanon with $29.1 million for border and port security assistance. In December 2022 the UK committed to providing another 13 million pounds to the Lebanese army between 2022 and 2025.
Deportations Following Rescue at Sea
On December 31, 2022, a boat carrying more than 230 people began to sink in the Mediterranean a few hours after its departure from the coast of Tripoli in northern Lebanon. Those who had been on the boat told Human Rights Watch that they were rescued and pulled back by the army and taken to Tripoli. After they went through medical examinations and check-ups, the Lebanese Military Intelligence conducted investigations with the rescued people and confiscated their identification documents and phones.
Three Syrians who had been on the boat said that in the early morning hours of January 1, the LAF placed Syrians saved from the sinking boat on army trucks and took them to a military checkpoint in Chadra, in north Lebanon, and then took them to the border with Syria in Wadi Khaled. The LAF then instructed deportees to cross into Syria, where members of Syria’s Fourth Division were waiting for them.
The Fourth Division held deportees in an agricultural greenhouse and, together with traffickers who interviewees said were also there, demanded between US$100 and $400 to release them, either into Syria or by smuggling them back to Lebanon. Those interviewed said that they saw members of the Fourth Division coordinating with traffickers on the payments. One man who was deported said that those with no means to pay were taken into the custody of the Fourth Division.
“The Fourth Division sold us to the smugglers, and the smugglers sold us to our families,” said a 24-year-old Syrian refugee registered with the UNHCR, who was deported with his young nephew after being rescued from the sinking boat.
“Around 30 people, we don’t know where they are. They didn’t have money,” another deportee said.
Raids on Syrians’ Homes
Other than the three people detained at sea, everyone interviewed who had been deported said that, after they were arrested, they were taken to local military stations for a short period or directly to the border crossings. In some cases, the military confiscated their telephones, wallets, and other personal belongings. Interviewees said that the soldiers refused refugees’ requests to call their family members or lawyers. All deportations of interviewees to Syria took place within hours of their original arrest.
The LAF deported interviewees through the Masnaa and Wadi Khaled border crossings. Wadi Khaled is an informal crossing located in northern Akkar and bordering Homs in government-controlled Syria. The Masnaa crossing is a formal border crossing in the eastern part of Lebanon. In the letter to Human Rights Watch, the army said that they were deporting Syrians across international borders and into Syrian territories “from which [deportees] came from,” and said that since Syrians had “passed through this border area without being subjected to any danger or persecution, these areas are deemed safe for them.”
On April 19, the authorities deported a man and his wife, and four out of their five children, after the Army raided their home in Aley, just after he had dropped off his 7-year-old daughter at school. Despite his repeated pleas to get his daughter from school before being deported, the army rejected his request, separating the family.
In its response, the army denied separating families and said in deportations processes “the principle of family unity is respected, taking into account the non-separation of children from their families, and in many cases the family’s wishes were fulfilled by joining the head of the family who was set to be deported or vice versa.”
Human Rights Watch research indicates that since early April 2023, the LAF conducted raids and arbitrary arrests in areas where Syrians are believed to be living, including in residential buildings and informal settlements across the country, including in Jounieh, Bourj Hammoud, Aley, Qob Elias, and the Bekaa valley.
Three people who witnessed arrests or were arrested in Jounieh said that soldiers raided a building housing Syrians at around 5 a.m. on the morning of April 10. The soldiers, some wearing masks, entered the apartments and told all men to provide their residency papers, interviewees said. The soldiers then rounded up, handcuffed, and loaded those with expired residency documents into army trucks, regardless of whether they were registered with UNHCR.
“One soldier came [into the army truck] and he flipped our shirts on our heads, blinding us so we didn’t see where we were going,” said a man deported as part of this raid. Those arrested were then taken to a military barrack where they were interrogated and photographed, with no knowledge yet that they were about to be deported. They were then put, yet again, on army trucks and driven to the Masnaa border with Syria, said two people interviewed.
Those arrested only knew they were being deported after they asked to remove the shirts from their heads as they had trouble breathing. “When they lifted the sweater off me, I knew where we were going,” the man said. “I know that road. I memorized it.”
At the Masnaa border crossing with Syria, Lebanese army soldiers handed them over to another army division, who returned their confiscated belongings, then took them to a no-man’s land area beyond the border and left them. “They told us no one should dare come back or we will shoot you,” the man said.
Another man deported that day had fled the Syrian army and arrived in Lebanon just seven months before his arrest. After he was deported, Syrian authorities arrested and held him in the Syrian Military Intelligence’s Branch 235 prison, better known as the Palestine Branch, in Damascus.
He said that he and 12 others held there were tortured. He said he also met people there who had been deported following a raid the army conducted in Bourj Hammoud.
“When I first came to the Palestine Branch, they broke me,” he said. “They shaved our hair and tore our beards out with their hands […] When they would take me to the investigations room, I could hear […] the screams of women and children being tortured.”
After he was released, he was ordered by a military court to serve with the Syrian army in Idlib, but he fled Syria shortly thereafter.
Arrest and Deportation at Checkpoints
Human Rights Watch also spoke to the wife of one person detained at an informal checkpoint in Qob Elias, and four people detained at permanent and informal checkpoints in various areas across Lebanon, including the town of Mejdlayya in the North Governorate, the West Bekaa, and Qob Elias.
On May 3, a man and his cousin left their home in an informal settlement in the Bekaa Valley to go work in Beirut. When they arrived at a checkpoint in Qob Elias, army soldiers asked if they were Syrian, then arrested and loaded them into army trucks when they failed to show valid residency papers.
One man had expired residency papers while the others were at home. Both were registered with UNHCR. They were deported via Wadi Khaled and dropped off in a no-man’s land area beyond the Lebanese border. They said that shortly after this, soldiers from the Syrian side of the border arrived.
“Once the Lebanese army left, we heard screams coming from the other side, we [heard] some soldiers from the Syrian side saying, ‘stay there!”’ one man said. Terrified, they ran away and hid under a tree until they were able to call their parents and organize a safe way out of the area. “I don’t know what happened to the others – we didn’t even look behind [to see] what happened to the others.”
Another man was detained by the army at an ad hoc checkpoint in April while on his way to work in West Bekaa. The army deported him the same day via the Masnaa border, where he was delivered with 10 other people to a Syrian Military checkpoint. He was held for three nights and interrogated by the Syrian Army. “At night, one soldier came in and he called the names of eight people. They took them out of the room, and we never saw them again,” he said.
The wife of a Syrian man said he was arrested in April by soldiers at an ad hoc checkpoint while on his way home in Qob Elias. She said that he had fled to Lebanon in 2017 to avoid serving in the Syrian army. Even though he was known to UNHCR, the LAF deported him shortly after his arrest and he has not been heard from since, his wife said.
Ill-Treatment and Beatings
Six people said they were subjected to ill-treatment following their arrest, including beatings, threats, degrading treatment, and sexual harassment.
The man and his cousin said that soldiers beat them on the face, forced them to stand for hours, and humiliated them. At a military base in Qob Elias, soldiers forced them and other deportees to view pornographic images and sexually taunted them about life in prison once returned to Syria.
“As soon as we came down from the car, the soldier came to my cousin and me and he grabbed us from the necks from the back and he grabbed so tight,” one man said. “My neck still hurts […] Then he slapped me on my face very hard, from the back of his hand. The soldiers inside the pick-up [truck] had their rifles turned on us […] The soldier who brought us told the soldiers inside the truck to shoot us if anyone tries to run away.”
“They [stood] us on the wall with our hands behind our backs,” his cousin said. “They were beating the people that moved. They slapped me twice […] Some were saying you are going to your beautiful boss, Maher Assad, [the head of the] Fourth division. One man started crying because he was tortured for four years by this division.”
The man deported following the raid in Jounieh, said that the soldiers blindfolded him and other deportees after loading them into trucks bound for the Lebanese border. At the Masnaa crossing, soldiers entered the trucks and began beating those about to be deported. “He slapped me four times and then slapped me with his two hands and they hit the one next to me. They hit all [the people] in the back row [of the truck].”
After the LAF arrested the man with his wife and children, they put him, his wife, and his 17-year-old child in plastic handcuffs. At the last Lebanese army checkpoint at the Masnaa border, he saw the army beating his son. “The soldier started beating him. He slapped him hard five times and then two soldiers approached trying to hit him,” he said.
Two people also reported being subjected to ill-treatment after being delivered to the Syrian Fourth Division. “When they gave us to the Fourth Division, [the Fourth Division] treated us so badly,” one said. “They called us animals. They cursed our mothers … They beat people with the rifle. They kicked us. We just had to do what they said. They asked us ‘What if we call and tell your father you’re dead? What if you go and fight in Idlib?’”